War memorials are a feature of the Australian landscape. Obelisk and arch, broken pillar and stone statue remind us of the crippling loss a young nation faced in campaigns overseas. But where are the monuments to conflicts fought in our own country – a brutal war of dispossession that left deep and enduring scars on countless communities?
As the recent debate over Australian statues demonstrates, sanitised symbols of violence and dispossession have long stood unchallenged in the heart of our towns and cities. By occupying civic space they serve to legitimise narratives of conquest and dispossession, arguably colonising minds in the same ways white “settlers” seized vast tracts of territory.
Read more: The politics of public monuments: it's time Australians looked at what, and whom, we commemorate
Stan Grant has called for a Sydney statue of James Cook that claims Cook “discovered” Australia to be corrected. Others have called for the renaming of buildings and public spaces named after Lachlan Macquarie and people associated with Queensland’s slaving (known as “blackbirding”) history.
In response, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, along with other politicians and commentator Andrew Bolt, have labelled these calls to alter monuments “Stalinist”.
In debating the place “explorers” or “blackbirders” might occupy in civic space, Australians face a choice in how we engage with a past that is painful, multivocal and complex. White Australians raised such memorials as tributes to their colonial pasts; other than as subjects, there was no place for Indigenous peoples.
Should politicians, bureaucrats or the apologists for our country’s racist past decide the fate of these memorials today? Or can this debate empower previously displaced voices? These monuments have maligned and marginalised first nations’ peoples from the first day they were erected. And they stand, after all, on land whose sovereignty was never surrendered.
Indigenous communities have confronted such challenges before. And they have acted with courage, wisdom and generosity. In Fremantle, Western Australia, a monument that celebrated the racism that mars Australia’s past has today become a symbol of dialogue and reconciliation.
Revising the past
The Explorers’ Monument in Fremantle was unveiled in 1913 to commemorate three white explorers – Frederick Panter, James Harding and William Goldwyer – who were killed in the far northwest in 1864. For generations it stood unquestioned in the centre of the Esplanade Reserve in Fremantle, enshrining a pioneer myth writ deep in Australian history.
A series of plaques circling the monument claimed that the explorers were attacked at night and “killed in their sleep” by “treacherous natives”. The land where they died is portrayed as hostile and alien: a “terra incognita”. Aboriginal people are described as savages, the whites as “intrepid pioneers”.
Other features of the monument are stridently belligerent. An imposing bust pays tribute to Maitland Brown, “leader of the government search and punitive expedition” who carried the explorers’ remains back with him to Fremantle. Brown’s expedition ended in the massacre of around 20 Aboriginal people; mounted and well armed, none of his party were killed or wounded.
In 1994, the United Nations Year of Indigenous Peoples, a counter-memorial was set in the monument’s base. Elders from Bidyadanga (formally La Grange) unveiled a new plaque outlining the history of provocation that led to the explorers’ deaths. It was a striking instance of what scholars call “dialogical memorialisation”, where one view of the past takes issue with another and history is seen, not as some final statement, but a contingent and contested narrative.
Equally importantly, the plaque acknowledges the right of Indigenous people to defend their traditional lands and solemnly commemorates “all those Aboriginal people who died during the invasion of their country”. The dedication service ended as Aboriginal people scattered dust from the site of the massacre and two white children laid wreaths of flowers decked in Aboriginal colours.
The Explorers’ Monument carried the same inscription chiselled on war memorials the length and breadth of our country. “Lest we forget” was the chilling phrase chosen to commemorate Panter, Harding and Goldwyer in 1913, and those words back then were an incitement to racial hatred.
Over 80 years later, the people of Bidyadanga and the Baldja network in Fremantle added “lest we forget” to their counter-inscription. This invites us to widen the ambit of remembrance and recognise the common tragedies that attended the so-called settlement of Australia.
Authorised and unauthorised history
In the United States, symbols of the nation’s racist past have been the flash points of violent confrontations, such as in Charlottesville. Protesters demand the removal of statues that celebrate slave owners and white supremacists. Right-wing militia groups rally to their defence.
Similar debates have emerged elsewhere. Should great centres of learning like Oxford pay tribute to Cecil Rhodes, a man who pioneered the policies of apartheid?
Can a democracy enshrine the advocates of racial, sexual or religious discrimination, or peaceful communities honour those who carpet-bombed Europe? In each case, statues and memorials stand at the heart of these controversies. Once the meanings of monuments were thought to be set in stone; now they crumble in the relentless critique of history.
Read more: Fair Game? The audacity of Héritier Lumumba
Would those opposing the altering of Australia’s colonial statues have also opposed the demolition of the Berlin Wall, or the toppling of statues of Saddam Hassein? In monuments, as in written histories, some narratives are authorised, others denied or disputed.
And such critique raises deeper questions, interrogating the very nature of history as a scholarly discipline. Does history cease to exist when a memorial is removed from public view and civic sanction – or is that act of removal, a forceful repudiation of the past, itself an act of choice and agency in history?
Ray Minniecon was an Aboriginal student at Murdoch University who led the liaison with Indigenous communities. “Monuments,” he said on the day Fremantle’s counter-memorial was unveiled, “are not just a window into our past; they are a window into ourselves.” We can choose. We may cling to the racism and hatreds of the past or make our own commitment to what the constitutional convention at Uluru aptly dubbed “truth telling”.
Perhaps, at this critical juncture in our history, Fremantle suggests the way forward.